"These findings are exciting because it might mean that a relatively simple change in diet could help alleviate painful symptoms tied to gluten neuropathy," said lead author Panagiotis Zis, MD, a senior lecturer at the University of Sheffield. "While our study shows an association between a self-reported gluten-free diet and less pain, it does not show that one causes the other."
Gluten sensitivity has been associated with peripheral neuropathy -- a condition in which peripheral nerves become damaged, causing weakness, numbness and pain in the hands and feet. Diabetic neuropathy can also cause these symptoms, but when diabetes is ruled out and a person is sensitive to gluten - the pain and numbness might be caused by gluten neuropathy.
The British study involved 60 mostly elderly people who had gluten neuropathy. They were asked about the intensity of their pain, mental health and whether they followed a strict gluten-free diet. About half of the participants had pain with their neuropathy.
People who were following a gluten-free diet were significantly more likely to be free of pain than those who did not. Over half of those without pain were on a gluten-free diet, while 21 percent who were gluten-free still experienced pain.
After adjusting for age, sex and mental health status, researchers found that people following the strict diet were 89 percent less likely to have pain.
The study also found that people with painful gluten neuropathy scored significantly worse on their mental health assessment, which had a range of zero to 100 with 100 being best. Those with painful gluten neuropathy had an average score of 76, as opposed to the average score of 87 for those with painless gluten neuropathy.
"This study is promising because it shows that a gluten-free diet may help lower the risk of pain for people with gluten neuropathy," Zis said. "More research is needed to confirm these results and to determine whether the gluten-free diet led to the reduction in pain."
Further results of the study will be presented at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Neurology in April.
Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye, barley, oats and other cereal grains. Gluten is found in many types of food, including bread, pasta, cereal, sauces and salad dressing.
When people with celiac disease eat gluten, it triggers an immune response that attacks the small intestine, causing pain and inflammation. About 1-2% of the population has celiac disease, but most cases go undiagnosed and untreated. Celiac disease is hereditary and runs in families.
People with non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS) may also develop gastrointestinal symptoms, as well as headaches, chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia and allergies. Abdominal pain and irregular bowel movements are frequently reported with NCGS, which can make it difficult to distinguish from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
Research about the relationship between gluten and chronic pain conditions is rather slim, although there are many anecdotal reports that a gluten free diet reduces pain. In PNN columns, Donna Gregory Burch said going gluten-free helped reduce her fibromyalgia symptoms, while Lisa Ayres found that eliminating gluten quickly relieved her arthritis symptoms.
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